The impact of the recession on New York City has been clear: empty storefronts, disheartening newspaper headlines, advertisements for “recession buster” sales, and lines at job fairs that embrace entire blocks. Yet during these leaner times, there is also a continuation of the vitality of New York’s identity as one of America’s primary terrains for the production and consumption of cultural spectacle. As the magazine New York noted late last year, “recessionary gloom aside, New York in 2009 felt looser, freer, more interesting even than it has in recent memory — a littler grittier, perhaps, but more resourceful, too.” The thick malaise of the economic downturn has yet to eclipse the glitz that sustains Gotham’s place in the public imagination. Amidst the strains of unemployment, foreclosures, and the ubiquitous mention of “tightened belts,” the hit song “Empire State of Mind,” by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys, defiantly proclaims, “These streets will make you feel brand new, big lights will inspire you, let’s hear it for New York, New York.” Evoking Billy Joel’s 1976 ode, the song became the city’s unofficial anthem when the New York Yankees won the World Series. As this essay sketches, this kind of celebration of the city’s distinct brand of glamour became interwoven with the palpable gloom of the economic slump and residents’ hope for a recovery that cannot come soon enough.
As the somber realization of the recession’s complexity set in, hostility toward Wall Street bankers mixed with unemployment concerns, anger over corruption scandals, and fatigue over two wars. Together these fed a sour populism in pockets across the country. It is worthwhile, however, to situate this mood in a period that Gilles Lipovetsky labels “hypermodernity,” an accelerated state of Western capitalism characterized by “the culture of the fastest and the ‘ever more’: more profitability, more performance, more flexibility, more innovation.” The recession could not halt a trend whereby any possible event or act of interest is almost immediately tweeted, blogged, texted, uploaded on YouTube, displayed on Facebook and MySpace, or discussed on Gawker and user-run comment boards. Since the inscription of memory can now be instantaneous, cultural industries have rushed to respond to the commercial power and artistic implications of such an immediacy of experience. At a recent book launch, an aspiring but unemployed fashion designer asked public relations guru Kelly Cutrone (featured in MTV’s The City and the new Bravo show Kell on Earth) about the urgent need to “stand out from the crowd” in order to gain attention for a new product. In her reply, Cutrone suggested that garnering positive publicity for new cultural products in a sluggish economy would require a certain savvy about how to connect to clients using new media. According to her, because of Twitter and YouTube, “everyone’s a journalist now.”
This past year, unemployment climbed upwards. So did movie and concert ticket sales. The spectacle afforded by the stars of music, film, and television in New York and Los Angeles reaffirmed the escapist allure of popular culture. In September 2009, the Video Music Awards took place with full fanfare at Radio City Music Hall in Midtown Manhattan. As swarms of yellow taxi cabs, public buses, and evening rush-hour commuters streamed uptown on Sixth Avenue, I stood agape at the red carpet display in full swing: the glow of digital cameras and phones held aloft by crowds pressed behind police barricades, necks straining in order to catch a glimpse of their favorite stars. Alongside young “famous for being famous” reality-TV notables, there were MTV mainstays like Madonna and Green Day. Arriving atop a fire truck, Pink descended onto the red carpet only to realize that she was wearing the exact same dress as Shakira (news of this instantaneously tweeted and texted its way online). The evening ultimately produced other events that became seared into popular memory. Kanye West drew widespread scorn when he invaded the stage during Taylor Swift’s acceptance of an award and declared Beyoncé to have been more deserving. His outburst sparked national head-shaking: even President Obama remarked, “He’s a jackass” (during a speech before Congress just days earlier, the President had endured his own breach of decorum by a representative yelling, “You lie!”)
Faced with websites convulsing with denunciations of his act, West cancelled his tour with Lady Gaga, the New York-born pop singer and songwriter who became the first recording artist in history to have four number one hits from a debut album. As a year dominated by dismal recession statistics dragged on, it became difficult to ignore Gaga’s outré fashion, her sexually charged lyrics encapsulated in wildly popular dance-pop songs, and a non-stop creative exercise in cultural bricolage that blended Ziggy Stardust, Marilyn Manson, and Madonna, among others. In a commentary on Gaga’s ascent, Guy Trebay of the New York Times noted, “In a year when retailing flat-lined, when a flailing economy sent creative types scurrying for aesthetic foxholes, when the most indelible fashion image was of a dead man’s sequin glove, a single unlikely figure raised the flag for style and its power to confound, bewitch and amuse.” Consider Gaga’s performance during the Video Music Awards, at which she arrived with Kermit the Frog as her date. She simulated her death during a performance of her hit song “Paparazzi,” suddenly gushing blood as an audible gasp burst from the audience. With such acts, she capitalized on the importance of viral marketing and the centrality of the image in a hypermodern media landscape. Not surprisingly, Gaga was 2009’s most Googled image.
For visitors drawn to Gotham’s glamour, the most noticeable recent reconfiguration of public space is probably the so-called “pedestrianization” of Times Square. The closing of several blocks of Broadway to vehicular traffic renewed vigorous debate about the appropriate tone of the iconic space: a Disneyfied attraction for map-toting tourists versus a raw container of what architectural critic Nicolai Ouroussoff described as the “chaotic energy” that offers “the sense of being in a big public room.” Also, the “ruby red staircase” on the northern edge of Times Square (featured prominently in the video for Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind”) offers a lively place to sit, people-watch, and gaze at the ever brighter neon advertisements that enclose Gotham’s dazzling “public room.” Other innovative architectural projects were begun before the full brunt of the recession was felt but survived and now offer glimpses of post-gloom New York vistas. In addition to the ongoing rebuilding of the devastated World Trade Center site, the last two years have witnessed the opening of the limestone masterpiece that is 15 Central Park West on the Upper West Side, the Cooper Union’s New Academic Building in the East Village, and the Meatpacking District’s Standard hotel. The last of these straddles the popular High Line, a once decrepit set of elevated train tracks remade as an innovatively designed, lush public park. In terms of what lies ahead, the celebrated architect Frank Gehry is set to leave a stunning mark on the Lower Manhattan skyline with his 76-story Beekman tower, whose metallic undulations already hint at a reinvigorated city.
Undoubtedly, the economic turmoil of the last two years has battered communities around the world. In New York, the resulting gloom has tinged the glamour that fuels the city’s aura, those shimmering streetscapes and that obsessive consumerism celebrated in television shows like Sex and the City and films like The Devil Wears Prada. Yet the halcyon days (for some) of the pre-recession boom were abruptly ended by tales of unforeseen layoffs and unanswered job applications. The “glitterati” were themselves unable to escape the recession’s chokehold. The day before the eighth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Vogue and the Council of Fashion Designers of America sponsored “Fashion’s Night Out” to nurture retail shopping, recognizing that the mystique of models and catwalks must be sustained by heavier traffic in stores. And rather than hold court at a SoHo boutique or a Fifth Avenue institution like Bergdorf Goodman, famed Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour first traveled to a mall in Queens where she and Mayor Bloomberg spoke about the importance of the $10 billion fashion industry to the city’s recovery. Ultimately, however, it may be concluded that a gloomy despair and an aspiration to glamour are always interwoven threads of the vibrant urban fabric that still beckons to so many. Despite the entertainment afforded by the whirlwind of grand techno-pop spectacles played out in places like New York, the gnawing anxiety of impending evictions and evaporated careers will linger as the city begins an economic recovery that will prove long and difficult for many. As Jay-Z raps during his New York anthem, “City is a pity, half of y’all won’t make it.”
From guest contributor Victor P. Corona, Ph.D., a research associate at the Center on Organizational Innovation at Columbia University